Who is Your Favorite President?
Most people when asked are eager to state their favorite President, but few of them know the details which make- or don't make- a particular President well respected among his peers. The "Presidential Club" is an elite group with a limited number of members- only 45 so far- and getting into this club takes an enormous amount of skill- or sometimes luck. Some men have taken the office upon the death of a sitting President, others have striven for many years and finally attained the lofty position. This essay will not attempt to analyze each one of these men, as such an analysis would be far too comprehensive for this narrative. Instead, I will simply list those who I- as a professional historian- feel merit the "Top Ten" ranking.
1. George Washington regularly is ranked at the top of the list of American Presidents or easily within the top three by most historians. Why? There are numerous reasons, but among the most important is the fact that he functioned well in a very difficult environment- a young, struggling nation- with no precedents, limited resources and many opportunities to fail. Instead, his calm demeanor and intelligence managed to get the country on a firm footing and allow him to "pass the baton" to the next man who took office without controversy or anarchy in the streets.
2. Abraham Lincoln also receives high marks from most historians and in some polls out- ranks Washington. Lincoln also took office at a very challenging time- the nation was literally fracturing- and he served the country well, winning the Civil War and ending the abomination of slavery with his Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln held great promise for a second term, but was assassinated before he had a chance to further his successes.
3. Thomas Jefferson is often regarded more for his penning of the Declaration of Independence than his time in the Oval Office, but his tenure did produce enormous benefits for America. The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the country and brought a vast amount of land and resources to the growing nation. Although his embargo nearly crippled the country, Jefferson's crowning achievement with this purchase remains one of the most important acts by a Chief Executive.
4. James Polk is not a well known name outside of scholarly circles, but he had a huge influence on the course that America took. His success winning the Mexican-American War from 1846- 1848 allowed the negotiation of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that brought another enormous land purchase into our realm, again doubling the size of the nation by adding territory in what is now the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Nevada, California, Colorado and Wyoming, with vast reserves of gold, silver, lead, zinc, copper and other metals that helped fuel the latter stages of the Industrial Revolution. This purchase helped America rise to the top tier of world powers in the following decades. Polk is also well regarded for something that few Presidents do- keeping his promise to run for only one term.
5. James Madison is often thought of as the "Father of the Constitution" and this moniker would normally be enough to rank him among America's greatest statesmen, but his time in the Presidency did bring another major accomplishment- winning the "Second War of Independence" from England. The War of 1812 was not popular- some northeastern states even threatened to secede- but it did prove that America was a power to be reckoned with. Even though the war ended in roughly a stalemate, it proved that our nation was strong, could defend itself and rank among the "power players" in the western hemisphere.
6. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is often ranked by historians in the top five- sometimes the top three Presidents, but here I give him sixth place for a few reasons. He did take office at a horrendous time- the midst of the Great Depression- and he managed to keep the country functioning through a variety of programs, some well liked, others harshly criticized. Roosevelt did manage to get us through the Depression- even though it took a ramp-up for World War II to do it. He also gave people hope when so many millions were without it. He built up the military when it was sorely needed and managed to appoint a great General- Eisenhower- to help win the war, which he did. Despite the fact that unemployment was still at 14% in 1940- seven years after he took office- Roosevelt helped move the nation through two of its greatest crises successfully.
7. Theodore Roosevelt was a relative of FDR and is often ranked among the top ten U.S. Presidents for good reasons. He helped bring the nation into the twentieth century and was not shy about telling people who we were and what we stood for. "Walk softly and carry a big stick" was one of his favorite phrases and he was proud to use America's growing power and prestige to accomplish great things- the construction and opening of the Panama Canal being just one of them.
8. Harry Truman left office thinking he might be forgotten, but his accomplishments have been lauded as some of the best of any American President. He successfully took the reigns when FDR died and steered the nation to victory over Japan, ending World War II. His use of the atomic bomb still draws harsh criticism from some scholars, but it was warranted and the right thing to do in saving perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives. Truman also broke down the "color barrier" in the military and was, like Teddy Roosevelt, not shy about his feelings. Truman's "star" got a huge boost when the book "Truman" by David McCullough was released and he has remained in the top tier ever since.
9. Dwight Eisenhower was ranked in the bottom third of American Presidents when he left office in January 1961, but has since risen dramatically in ranking, now regularly rated in the top ten. Why? Eisenhower presided over an economy that was healthy and strong, with few periods of weakness, he established the Interstate Highway System which helped revolutionize transportation around America- and he shepherded in two states- Alaska and Hawaii. Eisenhower also successfully ended the Korean War, following Truman's questionable handling of that conflict. "Ike" is now a favorite among historians and for good reason- he deserves a top ranking.
10. Ronald Reagan was often derided in the media as a weak intellect, a "B-movie" actor with few talents and limited understanding of how to run a government. Yet he showed his critics they were all wrong. Not only had he successfully run our largest state (by population) California- he took office knowing exactly what he stood for and wanted to do. He also surprised his critics by NOT starting a war (he actually signed the first comprehensive nuclear weapons treaty with the Soviet Union) and managed to serve at a time of general economic prosperity and progress for the country (despite a nasty recession in 1983). Reagan was regularly underestimated- and he was proud of showing his critics what he could accomplish. His famous words "Mr.Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" are now part of Cold War history and proof that he could win this- the longest of any American "war" -without firing a shot.
People today often rank John F. Kennedy among the very best Presidents, but his accomplishments were mixed (he presided over the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion and also allowed the Berlin Wall to go up without a struggle; he did successfully "stare down" Cuba and the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis). The facts about "Camelot" are now regularly debated, as are his many extramarital "flings" while President. It is this historian's view that Kennedy gets an "Incomplete" grade as President, simply because we'll never know what he could have accomplished had he lived. Other Presidents, including Lyndon Johnson are often given high marks, but have numerous shortcomings in my view which will prevent them from being ranked among the greatest in that office. It is hoped that this brief review at least opens the eyes of some Americans and gets them to think about our nation- and the men who have helped make it great.